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Communist only by name, party eyes new image

Beijing, Sept. 18 (Reuters): If you had peeped into Beijing’s Central Party School in October last year, you might have witnessed a sight to make any old Socialist shudder.

Peter Mandelson, co-architect of Britain’s New Labour party and scourge of its old Left, was lecturing Chinese Communist Party officials. And students at the party’s top think tank and training camp were hanging on his every word.

“I told them — you are obviously going on your own prawn cocktail offensive,” Mandelson confided to a reporter later.

Baffled cadres apparently reached for their dictionaries at his glib reference to New Labour’s efforts to woo big business on the dinner party circuit, but they got the message.

After more than two decades of economic reforms, the Chinese Communist Party needs a new image — and a new ideology.

When the party holds its 16th congress starting November 8, delegates are expected to re-write the Constitution to officially allow private entrepreneurs to join for the first time.

The five-yearly congress could even appoint a handful of tycoons to the party central committee, the 200 most powerful people in China, analysts say.

Party chief and state President Jiang Zemin, due to retire at the congress, has championed the plan with an eye on a slot in China’s political Valhalla, alongside his predecessors Deng Xiaoping and chairman Mao Zedong.

Once it becomes official doctrine, it will secure his continued political clout and sanction reforms to make the party more relevant in an increasingly complex and capitalist society.

One day, analysts say, the party might even change its name. “Economic reforms and marketisation cannot on their own make society more balanced, but can rather cause new imbalances,” says Lin Hong, a professor at the People’s University research centre for contemporary Chinese politics in Beijing.

“If China’s political system is not flexible or cohesive enough to absorb pluralistic political participation... this could cause social instability.”

For truth be told, China is Communist only in name. It has stock markets, Starbucks, a crumbling welfare system, and a private sector that accounts for 50-70 per cent of GDP.

China has the highest number of the world’s 40 wealthiest people under the age of 40 outside the United States.

But it is still run by a Communist Party which spouts Marxist rhetoric and officially excludes private entrepreneurs as “capitalist exploiters” — although many party members have quietly drifted into the private sector.

For the last two decades, China has fudged the issue with the euphemism “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. About five years ago, they decided they needed another idea.

The brains at the party school — headed by Jiang’s anointed heir Hu Jintao — began studying how socialist parties in eastern Europe failed to move with the times while those in Germany and Britain did.

Hence the invitation to Mandelson. What they came up with was a plan for intra-party reform — the awkwardly named “Three Represents”.

It says the party represents advanced productive forces, advanced culture and the interests of the majority of the people.

For advanced productive forces, read capitalists. Advanced culture means academics and others in the elite previously viewed as too Westernised. The third bit implies expanding the party’s support base beyond just workers, peasants and intellectuals.

The wording is intentionally vague to give leaders leeway on the scope and speed of party reform, analysts say.

Jiang kept it that way when he announced the theory in 2000. But he went a step further when he proposed admitting private entrepreneurs on July 1 last year, the 80th anniversary of the founding of the party.

Since then, other top leaders have all publicly backed the plan and state media has launched a massive publicity campaign to win over the population in every corner of the nation.

But for many ordinary Chinese — already subjected to Mao’s “Three Antis” and Deng’s “Four Modernisations” —the “Three Represents” is just another meaningless mantra.

Soldiers have fought floods with it. The Bank of China credited it in its earnings report. One farmer in Xinjiang told a recent visitor it made his cucumbers longer and fatter.

China has not seen a media campaign like this since the Mao personality cult of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.

And it has rubbed some prominent party members the wrong way. First, veteran Leftist and former propaganda chief Deng Liqun accused Jiang of forsaking Marxism and mimicking Mao.

”Someone will remove the hammer and sickle from the party flag and replace it with a computer and a satellite,” Deng wrote in a letter circulated widely on the Internet last year.

Despite the criticism, the congress is expected to incorporate the “Three Represents” in the constitution alongside Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory, analysts say. But it is not yet clear if Jiang’s name, as well as his theory, will be incorporated in the party charter.

To include his name would secure his position as the final arbiter of party reform.

Even in retirement, he would be consulted on all major changes, analysts say.

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